By Elke Krahmann
Many actors have embraced performance as a measure for the effectiveness and legitimacy of their international governance activities, ranging from the United States government to the World Health Organization and the World Bank.
In my recently published article in Security Dialogue, “From performance to performativity: The legitimization of US security contracting and its consequences,” I discuss why this approach is inherently problematic. I argue that the linking of performance to the achievement of publicly desirable ‘outcomes’ is not as simple and easy as it is portrayed. On the one hand, there is the question of how we can measure and attribute the outcomes of specific policies, activities or services. On the other hand, there is the more fundamental issue of how intended outcomes should be defined. What are ‘security’, ‘health’ or ‘development’ if we want to conceive of them as outcomes?
Taking the commercial provision of security during the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples, I argue that even in expert discourses there are at least three different understandings of ‘security’. Each implies different outcomes and performance measures. Thus, security has variously been defined as: (1) the absence of harm, (2) perceptions of safety, and (3) security capabilities and strategies, such as deterrence, protection, resilience, preemption and avoidance.
Since the last appears to fit best the demands of attributable and measurable performance ‘outcomes,’ security capabilities and strategies have become the mainstay of US security contracts and contractor assessments. Security strategies and capabilities can be easily specified, observed and counted. Specific activities and capabilities can also be directly and exclusively attributed to individual contractors. However, this conceptualization directly equates activities and capabilities with security as an outcome. Instead of assessing the actual results of security services, deterrence or protective strategies and technologies are used as substitutes. In short, this conception of security replaces outcomes with a focus on ‘performativity’, i.e. the repetitive execution specific strategies and capabilities which are simply equated with the intended results.
Instead of contributing to perceptions and experiences of security, some of the security activities demanded of US contractors have actually undermined them because contracting officials have disregarded local culture in their definition of ‘suitable’ security activities and capabilities
Performance assessments have thus shaped the provision and experience of security in Iraq and Afghanistan in two problematic ways. First, government officials and security have failed to see that they are not analysing the actual outcomes of contracted security services. As a consequence, contractors have been able to get away with behaviour that has had negative impacts on the local security environment. Excessive uses of force by firms such as Blackwater or Aegis have been noted, but the companies have been repeatedly rehired because of good ‘performance’ assessments.
Second, my findings show a problematic disconnect between security understandings and expectations of the international professionals who define contractor performance criteria and those of host state populations. Instead of contributing to perceptions and experiences of security, some of the security activities demanded of US contractors have actually undermined them because contracting officials have disregarded local culture in their definition of ‘suitable’ security activities and capabilities. The heavy armour and the visible deterrence measures demanded in US security contracts, for instance, have done little to win the hearts and minds of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have been traumatized during years of conflict.